By Doug Halberstadt
From 1979 through 1983, I attended Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. Our basketball team played in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). One of our conference rivals was the Shockers from Wichita State. At that time, they were coached by Gene Smithson and featured three future NBA players — Cliff Levingston, Antoine Carr and Xavier McDaniel. They were good, and as a Bradley fan, I hated them. The only team we hated more was our in-state rival located a mere 40 miles away in Normal, the Illinois State Redbirds.
Flash forwarding more than 30 years, I found myself doing something I never thought possible: I was cheering for the Shockers, solely because of Rockford native Fred Van Vleet. He was significantly instrumental in the successful season the Shockers enjoyed this year. My admiration for the Rockford Auburn High School graduate was shared by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people in this community. He turned Rockford into a “Shocker City.”
My friend Reggie Tillmon posted this on his Facebook page following the Shockers’ loss to Kentucky last Sunday afternoon: “Thank you, Fred Van Vleet and the Wichita State Shockers, for allowing us to go along on this ride with you. Thanks to his family for letting us all adopt Fred as our own. Fred, you represent your high school, city, and most importantly, your family with great maturity, character and grace. You probably don’t even realize the impact you’ve had on people’s lives that you’ve never even met, especially young kids in the Rockford area. We are extremely proud of you. You should be proud of all you and your teammates accomplished this season. What a great ride! Today’s outcome may hurt for a while, but one day, we will all look back and appreciate the blessings that this season was. Continued success to Fred, and his entire family. GO SHOCKERS!!”
His impact reached far beyond the hardcore college basketball fan. Even the lady who cut my hair this weekend told me her grandmother picked Wichita to win it all in her bracket, “because of Fred.” I know she wasn’t the only one. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Van Vleet, but from what I’ve been told by those who do know him, he is an exemplary student athlete, a humble role model and a tireless worker. He has a personality that makes it impossible not to like him.
I hope I do get to meet him some day. I’d like to share this column with him and tell him how he transformed me into a (temporary) Shocker fan, but more importantly, a Fred Van Vleet fan!
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the March 26-April 1, 2014, issue